I've been writing reviews online for a few years now and despite the fact my basic English skills are still abysmal, I have learned a few new things about the industry itself. Literally every big release over the last few years has seen accusations of bribed reviews. Whether it be due to corporate pressure or cash in-hand bribes, there's always an endless list of accusations aimed towards the majority of popular review sources but is there any credit to these claims?
I don't have to travel through ancient gaming history to find examples of what I'm talking about. Aliens: Colonial Marines recently launched across all platforms and was immediately labelled as a complete fail. Popular gaming websites offered terrible review scores, some even as low as 2/10, while other media outlets were a little less critical. For example, The Guardian newspaper gave the game a respectable 80/100 score; it doesn't take much imagination to visualize the immediate response from gamers that had read previous reviews from other sources.
Purely because the author of The Guardian article rated the game differently to other sources, his credentials and motives came into question. Many said the author had no idea what video-games are, while others said he was obviously paid off to write a good review.
This same argument can be seen across the gaming spectrum, from PC and MMO game reviews to the latest console titles. Another recent title victimized by the idiocy of certain gamers, Deadspace 3, was also treated in the same way. Some media outlets scored it high, while others scored it low, and depending on which score came out first; the subsequent reviews were pounded as propaganda and misinformation.
Looking a little further back we reach the highly anticipated release of Halo 4, arguably one of the most exciting titles to ever launch on Microsoft's Xbox 360. This time the conspiracy nuts actually had some "evidence" to back up their claims of bribed reviews in the form of a letter from an official PR group, TriplePoint PR. The letter stated that they had given the "journalist" a free limited edition Xbox 360 and Halo 4 in exchange for a review that was given at least a 9. Thousands immediately accepted the information without question and proceeded to verbally attack any journalists that rated the game higher than a 9/10.
What they failed to realize was that the letter was a complete fake. Not only was it filled with grammatical errors that even I could notice, but TriplePoint PR were not involved in the Halo 4 campaign and the "official" that apparently signed the letter was a fictional employee.
From a different angle, there have been some cases of actual evidence regarding bribed review scores. In July 2007 popular gaming outlet CVG confirmed that MetaCritic had removed a certain source through fear of "corrupt practices". Having attempted to to have my personal site added to MetaCritic a number of times, I can offer first-hand experience in their acceptance process, and it's intense. I would doubt most information I read on the internet but through my personal contact with MetaCritic and Co-Founder Marc Doyle, I find myself believing the claims laid out in the article.
So what's with all this hate towards journalists that provide reviews? As gamers we're not forced to follow any specific outlets, we're not forced to assume everything we read is fake and we're not held at gun point to purchase a title purely because X journalist rated it highly; so why do we feel the need to scream blue murder every time we read an opinion different to our own or our favorite journalists?
I've worked in the game industry for a little while now and I deal with various PR agencies on a daily basis, some of whom I've developed close friendships with. I have never seen any concrete evidence to suggest that bribing journalists is a common event and I've never been approached from an official source for anything other than my honest opinion.
However, I am aware of other situations from journalistic friends that does give some credence to the claim of bribed reviews, but not in the form of obvious cash pay-offs. Some PR groups give permission to post reviews before the standard embargo as long as a certain score is provided, which can have the potential of generating hundreds of thousands of views and a surprising buff to revenue. Another intelligent approach sees PR groups purchase advertisement space on the website before sending out the copies. Although this is not a direct approach on the individual journalist, it can still have some impact. If your boss told you that you're writing a piece for a firm that provides your company with $200k revenue in a year, it would take an extremely strong individual to ignore that fact when writing. Even the subconscious would play a small part.
I do have my own suspicions and I do believe some form of pressure is applied, but these are very rare circumstances and are not in the form of obvious cash sums or other materialistic rewards. You don't become a leading PR firm for the biggest game developers on the planet with poor business practice and obviously ridiculous tactics. If a gaming related PR company was openly discovered to be providing such bribes, the company would crumble within weeks and any sites would lose all credibility overnight.
The real problem here is the media sources themselves. What sites do you visit on a regular basis? What journalists have your trust in regards to reviews? It's a vicious circle of popularity = influence = abuse. Media outlets become popular for their content, the personalities of their writers and the services they offer but the more popular a media source becomes, the more influence it has on sales and the more likely it is for a PR group to attempt to apply pressure on the final review.
So if that was the case, you would search out a slightly less popular website with the hopes of locating an honest, unsuppressed review. However, that's also not a guarantee as every small website wants to become more popular and more often than not, they'll rig their review scores to create controversy; differing their opinion from every credible source on the internet.
In closing, it's extremely difficult to find a source that can guarantee it doesn't alter review scores based on internal or external pressure. This leaves us gamers is an awkward spot; where do we go? Who do we trust?
What are your thoughts on bribed review scores? Do you think it's as common as the reviews themselves, or do you agree that it's a small percentage of people with an interest leaning towards the crazy side of life?
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